A small troop forms at dawn. Despite the still reddened eyes, emotion reigns. The children squirm. Adults check backpacks. The roles are distributed, the briefing done. Alright, here we go. Sébastien Barboteu, the 39-year-old breeder, opens the pen and calls for his cows: 60 limousines and a few aubracs, their calves, plus Prospero the bull. Very quickly, all these beautiful people left for the departmental road that runs along the French-Spanish border between Prats-de-Mollo and La Preste, in the Eastern Pyrenees.
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It’s a parade. The tolling of bells resounds in front of the houses and, on the balconies, the residents crowd. Transhumance is a moment of communion for everyone. Well, almost. Some cranky Sunday mornings, in too much of a hurry to do their timed walk that they’ll share on Strava, an app dear to athletes, are getting impatient and honking their horns. As if the cattle and their 400kg unit would gently step aside to let them pass with a nod. On the contrary. The herd moves and moves and the breeder grumbles: “How stupid these people are! More wounds from the cities, that! Instead of enjoying, turn off the engine and just watch…” Transhumance is a moment of history in motion. An ancestral tradition recognized as intangible cultural heritage in France since 2020, the first step towards UNESCO registration. No offense to the impatient.
Lack of water
After two kilometers, the cows join a trail to finally depart along steep paths towards the pastures, located 11 km and 1,000 m higher. In the undergrowth, a lick is heard. Cows raise their heads. A thin trickle of opaque water between dark rocks. The ground forms a hole, water has accumulated there. Thirsty, the cattle stop to drink in big gulps. “I’m afraid we don’t have enough water for the whole season” Sébastien is alarmed, reminding him that each of his animals needs 50 to 100 liters a day. However, the dry streams follow each other along the winding paths that the cattle squad travels. “Even up there, the springs are almost dry. In some places, the trickle of water is not even the size of a little finger. It will take hours to fill a gutter with water. We will have to make future arrangements to try to capture what we can and allow the cows to drink. » Especially since the lack of water has other consequences as a domino effect. In some places, the grass – usually thick, green and appetizing – is just yellowish straw scorched by the sun.
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Suddenly we are worried in the back. The phone rings and the voices rise. At the back of the pack, the bull stopped, while a cow simply turned around. Sébastien returns and strides forward as reinforcements. “Bloody cattle! » Finally, the bull and the runaway cow will be placed together in a temporary meadow, and a little later that day, the breeder will drive them in a cattle truck to the mountain pastures. Uber cow…
Once up there, the creators organize themselves collectively. Pasture areas are distributed according to a pastoral agreement. Here, they are five to share the summer pasture. Together, they also recruited a cowboy, Ahmed, who is responsible for ensuring the animals’ well-being and location. Every week, he walks for hours to count, examine and guide the animals. “Generally, the different herds do not mix” he explains, looking away, seeming to see things the layman cannot distinguish. To avoid possible problems, Ahmed’s role as sentry is precious, because sometimes Sébastien only rides one day a week.
In these steep landscapes, time flies at a different pace. The passage of some white clouds dancing with the peaks, the caress of the breeze after a day of “avoiding” or even the flash of lightning in the distance… Nature is the master. “We don’t control much. attests to the creator. But so much the better, otherwise it wouldn’t be fun. »
A practice in decline
In the Pyrenees, around 4,500 farms still perpetuate transhumance, according to the Regional Directorate of Food, Agriculture and Forestry (Draaf) Occitania. That’s a lot, a priori. However, the setback is real. “The general decline in practice can be explained by the inability of institutions to direct transhumant systems in their support policies and discern the impact of their general policies in practice” analysis, in gentle techno language, agronomist Mahona Gelin in a study published in 2020. Sébastien Nègre, sheep farmer and living memory of the Prats-de-Mollo valley, concretely details this palpable decline: “In 1850 there were 32,000 sheep, 1,000 mares, 1,000 cows and 4,000 pigs here. Today, there are only 500 sheep, 800 cattle and a few goats. »
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A trend that Sébastien Barboteu, our cow farmer, attributes to the common agricultural policy (CAP), which favors cattle. “Today, we kill most of the sheep farmers he regrets. We no longer have lambs and we increase imports every year. »A free trade agreement between Europe and New Zealand has just been signed.“The productivist system presses for this. Around here, some people have completely stopped riding cows in the summer. They fall year-round, fed on plastic-wrapped silage. [fourrage fermenté]. And, the worst is that this system pays more. »
According to him, it is a balance between species that must be reestablished to perpetuate not only the ancestral system of transhumance, but also to maintain the mountain as we know it. The dry and hot Mediterranean climate of the plains limits forage production. By spending the summer in mountain pastures, the animals therefore participate in a virtuous system: lower consumption of forage bought and delivered by truck in favor of maintaining natural grasslands that store carbon. Thus, by “mixing” sheep, goats and cattle, which can graze differently in the same space, a symbiosis is created that promotes a rich biodiversity of pastures.
prairies in danger
However, today, the decline of agriculture means less maintenance of the prairies. This leads to an increase in tree buds, usually conifers. With a double disadvantage: they are particularly exposed to the risk of fire and have a controversial effect on the climate. “In twenty years, entire swaths of pastures were closed. If a fire started there, thousands of hectares would be threatened. Everyone says we need forests: yes, good forests. But conifers dry out and acidify the soil, and I wonder what the carbon balance might have.… » Sebastian told himself aloud.
According to the Environment and Energy Management Agency (Ademe), softwood trees store up to 73 t of carbon per hectare. This is much less than hardwoods (84 t C/ha). And, according to INRAE, mountain meadows have a soil storage capacity of 93 t C/ha (against 70 for forest soil), which makes them true “carbon sinks”. The massive development of softwoods in a large part of the national territory, due to the strong demand from the wood industry, is thus pointed out by actors committed to ecology, such as France Nature Environment (FNE), which denounces a phenomenon that “has contributed to worsening climate change: more conifers and more exploitation is the wrong solution for the climate! “.
Picking up a stalk of grass at his feet, Sébastien Barboteu resumes: “At the time, in the pastures of the mountains, it was a black sheep. We, today, have places where we have to maintain the mountain mechanically with a robot or a crusher, it’s absurd. Sheep can naturally limit the growth of pine and heather and thus allow the appearance of clover and clover the following year » two legumes that cows love and that, in addition, fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil to bring it to the meadow. “And then, we didn’t sow with machines of €100,000 species of seeds that crossed all of Europe adds the creator. So it’s a subtle balance that needs to be created, and it’s also up to us to question ourselves. »
The questions are many. The stakes at least that much. Each mountain pasture is different and faces its own challenges. Heat and drought in the eastern part of the Pyrenees. Predation by bears and wolves elsewhere. Not to mention the difficult coexistence that sometimes arises with human activities and some neo-rural ones. For Sébastien Nègre, the sheep farmer, “the future will be different, but not necessarily negative. The climate is changing, but for seven thousand years there have been shepherds in the Pyrenees, whatever the context. We are resistance fighters.” Sébastien Barboteu completes: “The system will last, but it will be up to people to make the right decisions. »” AND conclude the two creators, we are much more afraid of man than of nature. »